He had made the transition to joining the Nazarenes. He seemed quite comfortable with the transition, and to be honest, I did not understand how he could be. This first encounter with Nazarenes was both exciting and strange all at the same time. I found the people to be warm, welcoming, and exceedingly friendly. I also found the whole “way” of being the church was unfamiliar to me. The people considered one another family. They entrusted their lives to one another and were quite open with one another.
This was strange to me, because church in my world simply was not like family. It was deep and meaningful, but it lacked the sense of journeying together. These Nazarenes were convinced their lives not only mattered to God, but to one another. So, I began to attend this Nazarene church from time to time, just as I continued to participate in mass. Honestly, I found the combination of experiences to be very fulfilling. So, for a while I lived in two worlds: the church of my family heritage and a new church where I felt I was with family.
This arrangement worked well for about a year until I could no longer continue in both directions. Too many questions were rising up within me, andtoo many future decisions required a choice: Which church would be my home? I made the decision to visit another Nazarene church near my college. I had never attended there and knew no one.
The church surprised me with its welcoming spirit. I was greeted at the door and made to feel a part of their larger family. Over time, I found myself participating in worship, discipleship, and service for God and on behalf of the church. Then, came the day when the pastor preached a message of real hope: The real hope was in a Savior who would give me the assurance of salvation here and now. For the very first time, I sensed that God did indeed forgive me for my sins. I sensed the deep and abiding presence of the Holy Spirit at work in me, leading me to serve God and serve others. I could not keep silent about what God had done in me. I did not know what to call it; I had no vocabulary by which to speak about it, but no one seemed to care. I stood in the midst of the community and told my story. Many nodded their heads in agreement; others shouted expressions like, “Amen” or “Praise the Lord.” It was as if they knew exactly what had happened to me.
I was greeted at the door and made to feel a part of their larger family.
Nearly 30 years after that blessed day, I reflect often about the how and why I am still a Nazarene. Here is what I have discovered in my journey thus far:
Nazarenes Are People of Christian Hospitality
The first reason why I have remained in the Church of the Nazarene is the hospitality I found in it. This is not to say that other Christian bodies are unhospitable or unwelcoming. In fact, over the years I have enjoyed the fellowship and kindness of the Lord from many Christians of various denominational backgrounds. Still, something was decidedly different among the Nazarenes in this regard. I was not simply greeted with a warm handshake and a smile; I was welcomed into their homes, into their lives. Over the next three years, the Nazarene church in South Bend, Indiana, fed me at their dinner tables, took me into their life events, prayed over me, and encouraged me in my walk with Christ.
I was amazed at how these generous Christians anticipated the various steps in my own journey. At final exam times, I would receive care packages of snacks and beverages to help me study and to beshared with my friends. Every Sunday—and I mean every Sunday—one of the families in the church made sure I shared Sunday lunch with their families. I was invited to join the choir and included in all-church events. I received regular notes and cards of encouragement. The senior adults decided to come to my world, so they scheduled a day trip to my university. I was invited to offer them a tour of the campus and to share about my life there.
Systematically, I made the circuit of home visits with the senior adults. Sometimes it was around dinners, but most often it was an invitation to just come and chat. As I look back on those visits, I was amazed at how the Holy Spirit guided our conversations. They were never intrusive. They were always welcoming, loving, genuinely interested in what mattered to me. They always ended the same way too: Hands were laid on my shoulders, and prayers were offered so that I might follow Christ in faithfulness and obedience. These were not contrived events. They were genuine expressions of deeply Christian people living out their faith.
In all of these conversations, I was never urged or encouraged to abandon the faith of my childhood. These Nazarenes only encouraged me to fall in love with Jesus and to remain obedient to him. This made all the difference in the world to me. Christian hospitality is the set of attitudes and actions, which reflect the mind and heart of Jesus Christ. These precious saints were determined to be Christ to me. It made all the difference in the world as to whether I would be a visitor, or whether I would settle into my new family.
Nazarenes Love to Share Their Faith
At the same time the South Bend Nazarenes were practicing Christian hospitality, they were also willing to tell me their stories of God’s faithfulness. I watched and listened to testimony after testimony of God’s rescue, healing, and forgiveness. These Christians were quite open and transparent about their journeys of faith. They were honest and confessional. Often, they would recount the stories of pain and hopelessness that led them to receive Christ as Savior and Lord. Their openness and transparency was so very appealing to me. I wanted to know more about their stories. I was excited by the ways they witnessed to Christ’s presence in their lives. I was especially drawn to the stories of assurance in response to faith. These were not stories of emotional hype or simply of trips to the altar. Many of the stories included times of prayer at the altar, and there was a deepsense of emotion wrapped up in the telling of the stories; however, the assurance the Nazarenes bore witness to was something deeper than surface issues. They had deep confidence that God did love them, and that he gave everything for them. This was energizing. The very thought that God was deeply invested in relationship with me was exactly what I needed to hear. I had always believed that God loved humanity, but I was still unsure about me. Why would God focus God’s attention on me when there were so many other needs in the world? The Nazarenes who welcomed me taught me this was who God was. He was not an impersonal being, but a loving Lord deeply committed to me and my well-being. I found myself seeking out these stories of assurance. I attended special services when testimonies would be highlighted and celebrated. The Nazarenes taught me how to tell my own story. They showed me how to recount God’s gracious activity in my life in order to encourage and lead others into saving faith. In other words, their witness became a means of revelation to me. That revelation led to faith, which led to witness coming forth from me, which became revelation. The work of God’s faithfulness became the passion of my life through the testimony of the Nazarenes.
Nazarenes Celebrate the Possibilities of Transforming Grace
While these things were sufficient to move my heart and encourage me in faith, it was the doctrine of Christian Perfection that settledmy heart and mind with the Nazarenes. From my earliest memories, I sensed a desire to please God, to serve God well. I was not a Roman Catholic in name only; I was vigilant in my practices of piety. I believed in the disciplines of the Christian life. I learned how to pray the prayers of the daily office. I wanted nothing more than to please God with a life of faith and obedience.
When I met my first Nazarenes, they talked about things like holiness of heart and life. They spoke and testified to freedomfrom sin in this life. They preached, witnessed to, and celebrated the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to remove sin and fill the heart with love. They spoke of power for holy living and bearing witness. These Nazarenes were not arrogant about their spiritual lives. They boasted of the Lord Jesus Christ and his work on the cross in washing away the stain of sin. This spoke directly to my need. Those first Nazarenes told me that I should not give up the disciplines of the Christian life that had been built into me by the church of my childhood; they knew better than that. They told me that Roman Catholics knew instinctively how to live and practice acts of piety and acts of charity. These Nazarenes held out in front of me the promise of the Spirit to fulfill the Father’s purposes in me. They encouraged me to commit to corporate worship, to Bible study, and to prayer.
In the end, I found the depth of God’s mercy in entire sanctification, not at an altar. Rather, I found the deeper work of the Spirit by kneeling at a chair in my pastor’s office. He prayed over me and for me. In that moment, I found what my life had been longing for. By grace, I knew deep in my being a purity of heart and life that would carry me from that moment to the present.
I owe these Nazarenes everything. They made a place for me and showed me how God had gifted me for service in his church. I cannot imagine being anywhere else. Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift!
PHILIP R. HAMNER is senior pastor of Overland Park (KS) Church of the Nazarene.